Mastering "Doctorateness": Helping Graduate Students Understand How to Move from ABD to PhD, Spring 2012

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By Nanda Dimitrov, Associate Director, Teaching Support Centre

How do you know when your graduate students are ready to go and do research on their own, or when they are ready to defend their dissertation? Most faculty members would say ‘I know it when I see it.’ We all know intuitively when a doctoral student sounds like a scholar and can talk the talk of economists, biochemists or historians-- when they come up with original research questions and propose a sophisticated and reliable research design to study these questions. Researchers who explore components of this quality in graduate students call it doctorateness (Trafford and Leshem, 2009). We often assume that grad students know what doctorateness is, and know what they need to do to achieve it, when in fact, much of what constitutes doctorateness is made up of implicit assumptions about what good scholarship is in the discipline. We know it when we see it, but it is very difficult to articulate in detail.

How we define doctorateness varies somewhat by discipline, but there are some common characteristics of doctoral quality--such as the ability to engage with the literature in the discipline and use its theoretical foundations to create new knowledge; the ability to abide by principles of research ethics; and to theorize about research findings in a meaningful and creative way. So if we created a word cloud for doctorateness, different disciplines would share the same core qualities, but would add unique competencies and traits around the edges of the word cloud. In nursing or occupational therapy, reflective practice would probably be one of the words; in psychology, mastery of advanced multivariate statistics would probably appear. (An interesting new website,, creates word clouds from any text.)

So when you attend your next thesis proposal meeting, comprehensive exam, or PhD public lecture, observe which qualities are the most critical--which qualities determine whether a candidate passes the thesis defense or the comprehensive exam. When you listen to the next job talk, observe what makes the candidate sound like a student, and what makes them sound like an independent scholar. Then, share these qualities with your doctoral students. Articulating what doctorateness means in our disciplines may help us support graduate students in their progress towards the degree in several ways. It makes the outcomes of the doctoral program more clear, and may help them proceed on the path to the doctorate when they get stuck at major conceptual thresholds.

In 2009, Dr. Jennifer Boman wrote an article in Reflections about threshold concepts in the disciplines based on the work of Land and Meyer (2008). Take a look at her article (click here) for examples of threshold concepts and an overview of how thresholds may promote and hinder student learning. After reading the article, you may notice that doctorateness is a major conceptual threshold on the doctoral journey (Kiley, 2009; Whisker & Robinson, 2008).
Crossing the threshold of doctorateness has been conceptualized as a ‘rite of passage,’ during which students "learn the language not merely of the subject area but of graduate research study, and learn to act as a graduate researcher with the rigour and conceptual levels of thinking that is expected of them" (Kiley, 2008, p. 293.) By the end of their doctoral education, most students are able to apply successfully for faculty positions because they are perceived as independent scholars in their discipline. The ability to ‘pass’ as an independent scholar goes beyond subject expertise and ingenuity in research, and includes the ability to communicate one’s research effectively as well as the ability to form meaningful collaborative relationships with members of the disciplinary community (Boden, Borrego & Newswander, 2011).

Because doctorateness is a key threshold in doctoral education, students often get stuck before crossing it, and struggle for a while as they try to understand what being an independent scholar is really about. A sense of getting stuck is a normal stage of learning, called a "state of liminality" in the threshold concepts framework (Land, Meyer & Smith 2008). Faculty can help students get unstuck by sharing examples of really original or theoretically innovative research written by other grad students--not just senior scholars--to model the level of scholarship expected of a Ph.D. Supervisors can help their research team by encouraging them to read each other’s writing and give feedback, or by asking students who ‘get doctorateness’ to present their work to the lab group and to mentor the junior students who are at the threshold.

Some departments work to illustrate doctorateness through organizing a conference. They collaborate with a department at a nearby university to organize a local conference, where Ph.D. candidates can practice presenting their research, and hear about innovative thesis projects that other graduate students are working on at Waterloo, Guelph, or the University of Toronto. Departments can also help graduate students understand what academic success in the discipline looks like by involving students in the hiring process: grad students are invited to job talks by candidates, and after hiring is complete, the department holds a debriefing session, where faculty members share what they thought of the research and the presentations of each candidate. Some candidates come across as mature scholars, while other candidates may still sound like students--and it is important for graduate students to discuss what qualities distinguish the two.

Mentorship is critical at the threshold of doctorateness, because students are often discouraged and may consider quitting grad school--especially around the time of comprehensive exams or the proposal defense. With some help and mentorship, however, the light bulb will go on, and they will suddenly get doctorateness and start coming up with more and more innovative research designs and begin to thrive as independent scholars. Some students ‘get’ doctorateness from the first day of grad school, while others gradually understand it, after crossing learning thresholds slower, until they finally demonstrate that they have mastered doctorateness--at the thesis defense.

Kiley, M. (2009). Identifying threshold concepts and proposing strategies to support doctoral candidates.  Innovations in Education and Teaching International.  Special issue: Embracing Contraries in Research on Doctoral Education, 46(3), 293-304.
Land, R., Meyer, J. H. & Smith, J, (2008). Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
Trafford, V. & Leshem, S. (2009). Doctorateness as a threshold concept. Innovations in Education and Teaching International. Special issue: Embracing Contraries in Research on Doctoral Education, 46(3), 305-316.
Wisker, G. & Robinson, G. (2009). Encouraging postgraduate students of literature and art to cross conceptual thresholds. Innovations in Education and Teaching International. Special issue: Embracing Contraries in Research on Doctoral Education, 46(3), 317-330.